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Georgian Locals Oppose Oil Pipeline Project - 2003-02-05

Construction begins soon on a pipeline that will move crude oil from Azerbaijan, through Georgia and into Turkey. When finished, the 1,700 kilometer line will send 50 million tons of crude oil each year to a terminal on the Mediterranean coast. But in Georgia, residents who live near the proposed route have environmental, economic and security concerns.

British Petroleum is managing construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline on behalf of an international group of companies that will operate the line for some 20 years. BP corporate literature states that a key factor in developing a pipeline project is selecting the most appropriate route. BP officials, who pride themselves on being a green or environmentally friendly company, say they have done that in Georgia. Not everyone in Borjomi is so sure.

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the pipeline is Georgi Gachechiladze, chairman of Georgia's Greens party. He said his party and others, proposed a compromise route that completely avoids the special springs and gorge that lie near the town, but BP did not accept it.

Mr. Gachechiladze said Georgian officials and BP say the pipeline will not go through the gorge, close to it but not through, they say.

British Petroleum's general manager in Georgia, Ed Johnson, does not deny that the route chosen in Georgia was not the best. "The main issue surrounding Borjomi is it's an area of world-wide recognized mineral and spring water so, clearly you'd like to avoid such a resource if it were possible," he said.

But Mr. Johnson says completely avoiding Borjomi was not an option. "If you consider the ability to construct the pipeline in another area, the security of the pipeline, the ability to reinstate the landscape back to its previous form to a level acceptable by the worldwide community, it just wasn't possible anywhere but Borjomi," he explained.

Mr. Johnson declined to be more specific, other than to say British Petroleum did consider other routes and that there would always be, in his words, people or groups that feel more can be done.

The deputy director of Borjomi's largest mineral water bottling company, Badri Japaridze, is one of those people who believes another route should be chosen. His seven year old company is the market leader among mineral water bottlers in the former Soviet Union, producing 120 million bottles each year for sale in more than 20 countries. He estimates his business accounts for roughly ten percent of Georgia's exports.

Mr. Japaridze fears his business fortunes could suffer with the introduction of the BTC pipeline in Borjomi. And like Mr. Gachechiladze of the Greens party, he said he has real trouble understanding how the Georgian government and British Petroleum could fail to choose an alternate route, especially since the detour that Mr. Japaradize and other community leaders prefer adds only 17 kilometers to the pipeline.

"We are talking about 17 kilometers - a very small part of the pipeline. And I think there should be a solution for 17 kilometers. If we are talking about special measures, we can't say that the project of 1,700 kilometers will not happen because there is no solution for 17 kilometers, it's ridiculous," he said.

Ridiculous or not, the decision has been made. The pipeline will move forward and through Borjomi Gorge.

Georgia's environment minister accepted but later canceled an interview with VOA to speak about the pipeline. But another ministry official, Gia Zhorzholiani, who heads the department that approved the environmental and ecological survey done for Borjomi Gorge, said the most important thing now is to cooperate with British Petroleum because the deal is going forward.

Mr. Zhorzholiani also was confident that British Petroleum would fulfill the promises it made before the deal was approved, including its promise to use thicker than ordinary pipes and to increase the number of block valves to reduce the amount of oil that would be released in the event of a spill.

Despite all these precautions, many Borjomi residents, such as 20-year-old Levani, are deeply skeptical.

Levani, who is unemployed, said he has heard the pipeline could bring needed jobs to Georgia, and Borjomi in particular. But he said he is not sure a job is worth the risk especially, he adds, if Borjomi loses the natural resources it has.

Aside from environmental concerns, critics of the pipeline also fear it could prove tempting to international terrorists.

British Petroleum's Ed Johnson acknowledges that in today's global environment everyone has to be prepared with the best security on hand. He said the BTC project is no different and that British Petroleum plans to bury the pipeline in order to provide for the best protection.

"Burying it knocks out the vast majority of most people who would want to do real harm to the pipeline but, on top of that, we put in electrical sensing devices that would pick up anyone using a pick-axe near the pipeline for example. On top of that, we're using old-fashioned just two eyes and two ears that will be on horse-back and vehicles just everyday up and down the pipeline," Mr. Johnson said.

He said the last line of defense lies ultimately with the Georgian communities along the right of way of the pipeline. For that reason, he said British Petroleum is spending at least $10 million on environmental and community education, in order to ensure the public will be as interested in protecting the pipeline as he says British Petroleum is.

But one life-long resident of Borjomi told VOA the only thing he is interested in is ensuring that construction projects like the BTC pipeline will never be allowed on park land in Georgia again.